“It is possible to expound from each and every stroke of the letters in the Torah mounds upon mounds of laws.”
The introduction to today’s Daf Yomi portion expands the previous day’s discussion of the unlimited reach of the Torah by telling us that resident in each and every letter is “mounds and mounds” of laws. We are told that the truly righteous study from early morning through late evening. However, we are also told that one must not be cruel to his children (the text actually says “sons” but that is a matter for another day).
Being diligent in study does not absolve one from being a decent human being. Many of us have encountered brilliant people who neglect their families and friends through absent-mindedness or self-centeredness. Rava said: “In him who makes himself cruel to his sons and other members of his household like a raven for the sake of Torah.” We are told that when Rav Adda Bar Mattana told his wife that he was leaving for an extended period of time in order to study Torah, she pleaded with him to consider the welfare of his children. It must have felt like a form of abandonment to his wife, who was more concerned with feeding her children than her husband’s study. He cruelly told her that “if there is no bread, let them eat food prepared from rushes.” I can only imagine the look of anguish on the wife’s face when Rav places his hat on his head and walks out the door leaving her wondering how a rush bush will feed her family.
Can Rav Adda Bar Mattana become a righteous scholar if he neglects his family? If he is among the wicked, we are told that he will be punished immediately. At the same time, if he is among the righteous and his study saves him, his reward will be long coming, because it will not be apparent until he greets the World-to-Come. We are told through the words of Rabbi Ila that the “the reward of the righteous does not arrive immediately, but only in the World-to-Come.” This passage is troubling on two accounts: first, because anyone who has encountered truly bad people knows that they often come out on top and end up in powerful positions because they have the fortitude and constitution to do what it takes to elbow their way there. I learned the hard lesson over the years that life is not fair. And I was taught in Hebrew School that this is all there is; there is no afterlife or heaven waiting to reward those who live a righteous life.
There is a perspective, however, that balances the passage on the World-to-Come. Rabbi Yehoshua inquiries about this passage from Deuteronomy: “And you shall keep the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments which I command you today to do them.” We are told that today matters and one must fulfil one’s obligations on earth. We may need to wait for the mysterious World-to-Come to be rewarded for what we do today, but it is what we do today that is important. In a contradiction of the earlier passage we are also told that God does not punish the wicked immediately. I believe that most of us that have been around a while can attest to the accuracy of that statement.
All of the anguish of living a life is contained in today’s passages. Some of us try to do the right thing and fail, some manage to accomplish good in the world, and others never try at all. We will never know if there is a World-to-Come, but as a secular person I tend to think that any rewards are present in the here-and-now through our constant striving to do the right thing.
We are introduced to the image of a raven in today’s reading, which popular culture has often equated as a symbol of danger. But the raven is also a symbol of insight and learning. It is through the pain of failure that we learn, gain wisdom, and advance as human beings. And if there is anything to be learned from today’s reading, it is to live one’s life in the present, and not in the tomorrow, and even despite the pause created by the coronavirus, and perhaps because of the interruption in our lives, we must do what we can in the now.